Actress Rita Moreno's voice glides over the phone and into my ear, lilting, resonant and relaxed. "Hello," she says brightly, as I introduce myself, "thank you for calling."
I'm interviewing the mega-star of stage and screen in advance of her new, one-woman play, Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup which opens at the Berkeley Repertory Theater on September 7.
The show is the latest of several successes for the soon-to-be-octogenarian. She's also in TV Land's new hit sit-com "Happily Divorced," with Fran Dresher, playing Fran's mother Dori. (The show just got picked up for a second season.) And a 50th Anniversary, limited edition Blu-ray boxed set of West Side Story will be out in November. But, most importantly, she recently received the prestigious American National Medal of the Arts for her remarkable achievements on stage and screen; achievements which helped pave the way for Latinos in the entertainment industry.
BroadwayWorld readers will likely know Moreno for her Tony award-winning turn as Googie Gomez in the 1975 production of The Ritz and the screen version of The King and I (Moreno was Tuptim). But she is best known for her multi-layered and dynamic portrayal of Anita in the film version of West Side Story, for which she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Later, she would also add Emmy and Grammy wins, making her the first and only Hispanic woman to win all four awards.
As we begin to talk, there's no trace of the thickly accented, stereotypical Latina characters that she inevitably played in her early years in Hollywood and on Broadway. Those roles came complete with the requisite brown pancake makeup (Ms. Moreno's complexion is light) and either buckskins (she played a lot of squaws) or femme fatale low-cut blouses and tops with accompanying red lipstick, and broad strokes of black eyeliner. Her new show, Life Without Makeup, boldly defies any need for these ethnic affectations.
"In West Side Story, I mean George Chakiris [Bernardo] and me, especially in front of the Shark kids [the white gang], looked like we had been dipped in a bucket of mud. So I kept trying to tell them, you know what, we're all different colors. Some of us are blonde, some of us are redheads and some of us are fair-skinned. Some of us are very, very dark. We are many, many things, so why should we all be the same color? The make-up man really didn't get it. So I love the title, Life Without Makeup."
She pauses for a moment then says, "You know, that title has a lot of different meanings. People in show business especially understand. Tony Taccone, who has written the script - he's also the artistic director at Berkeley Rep - came up with the title. It's me - my life without any clothes on, as it were. I just love it."
"How did you come to be working with Tony Taccone on this show about your life?"
"I had done Master Class at Berkeley Rep, which was about Maria Callas. After that I played a very out-of-the-box part as Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. I played a Southern lady! But you know that's what actors do - and why not? That's why you're called an actor. And when I was in rehearsals, Tony and I would get together to have lunch between rehearsals and he would say, 'You really need to tell your story, because you are almost like a dinosaur in the sense that your kind of show business doesn't exist anymore.'" She laughs at this. "He said 'I think it's probably a very fascinating story.' And I would say - Oh, God, it's too daunting - the thought of going back. And I really kept fighting it and finally about two years ago he said, 'Hey, dear - you're 77. You better think about this. You need to do this now or forget about it.' And I thought about it and I thought, you know, he's right!
And that's when we got together and I started to tell him my life story, with him on a laptop and his assistant on a laptop, and a tape machine, and we worked on it for about a year, just talking about my life - because when you're 79 you have a lot of life to talk about."